The coolest thing happened this week. A teacher sent me some pictures made by students in her class; the pictures, their interpretation of scenes from my first book The Boy from Willow Bend.
I’ve received a few Willow Bend related emails over the years. The first one that stands out is from a university student in Italy. It blew my mind then that Vere had travelled as far as Italy and that she had selected him for her class project in her course on post colonial literature. “I really liked because of the kindness of the protagonist and the idea of Caribbean life and atmosphere it gave to me,” she wrote, adding. “I chose your book from the many my teacher proposed to me.”
To more established writers, maybe a small thing – I don’t know; but for a newly minted writer from a small place a world away, that was kind of a big deal. The Boy from Willow Bend was re-issued in 2009 and has been on the schools reading lists for Antigua and Anguilla for a few years now. A student at the University of Puerto Rico even did a paper on it that she sent to me and gave me permission to post just a couple years ago. I know Vere lives, though he would be a young man by now, but it’s always still kinda wild whenever I am reminded that he lives anew as that little boy trying to survive Dead End Alley for new readers continuing to discover him. I had such a reminder last year when school children who’d come to the Anguilla lit fest wanted photos and autographs. Wild.
That teachers are encouraging students to engage with Vere in ways that bring out their inner artist. Well, let’s just say when the images showed up in my inbox, I became unexpectedly emotional because Vere, we could never have imagined this.
That’s about half of the images sent. And like I said my response to this was indescribable.
As the initial elation settled, I did notice (yes, I am aware of the elephant in the room) that Vere and June and the whole Dead End crew (most of them) are looking a little …white. Prompting a discussion between the teacher and me about the challenge of getting black (and in this case, Caribbean, more specifically, Antiguan) children to centre themselves in their own imaginations enough to instinctively draw reflections of themselves. She had had a conversation with them about that, she said. Meanwhile, I shared with her a story I’d recently read (in the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books Volume 8 Number 1 Fall 2015) from the writings of the late Tim Hector in which he recounts a time when, as student of notable Antiguan and Barbudan (for many reasons) Reginald Samuel, he and his classmates were instructed to draw a man. Hector took great care with his drawing but when he proudly presented his work to his teacher it became what we now call a teachable moment. Like these students Hector was a black boy in a predominantly black country albeit one that was still then a colony. Hector writes: “(Mr. Sam – as they called him) rose from his chair. Sat on the desk in a very kindly manner…And then he said, ‘the negro is the only man in the world, who when he is asked to draw a man draws a white man. Everytime! Colonialism has done that to us. From now on when you draw you must try and draw people like yourselves.’ After that he always made one of our classmates model for art class.”
I told the teacher who’d sent me the pictures that one of the reasons I insist that submissions to the Wadadli Pen Challenge be Caribbean in spirit if not in setting is that this instinct to centre other over self reveals itself in the writing as well.
The teacher, though she already had an awareness of the challenges, said of the Hector story “I’m not going to forget that” – and I have no doubt that she is going to continue to use the openings and opportunities to have conversations with her students about not just making the characters look like themselves and the world they inhabit, that’s not the point; but instinctively identifying themselves as people of value who deserve to be centered, especially in their own imaginations. Self-awareness, self-love, self-affirmation. That’s what it’s about, right?
And so, I write this both in a state of joy at the way something I wrote continues to connect with and inspire new readers, with feelings of appreciation to both teacher and students, and with an awareness that the work continues.